By Jim Miller
Last week, President Obama gave a pretty good speech in which he outlined a series of solid progressive policy proposals along with a few very bad ideas like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
What was most telling about the response to his speech, however, was how glowing the praise was in some quarters for what, in essence, was a fairly pedestrian list of things to do: raise the minimum wage, support collective bargaining, admit that climate change is real and act upon it in some way, tax the rich more than the middle and working classes, recognize basic civil rights, and make community college free for students as a way to expand opportunity, as well as some other modest initiatives.
These proposals, along with Obama’s threat to veto the Keystone Pipeline have encouraged many downtrodden Democrats and progressives as they should, but they hardly represent a significant shift in our politics.
What I think the response from so many people in progressive circles (like the labor and community activists who I spoke with at a series of meetings last week) shows is how desperate folks have been for Obama to simply take the kinds of stands that many of us had hoped he would have taken all along. As Timothy Egan put it in the New York Times, “The brutal midterm electoral crushing, with Republicans gaining their largest House majority since Herbert Hoover, slapped him from his stupor.”
Truth be told, a lot of the joy people on “the left” I know took in Obama standing up to the knuckle-dragging Republicans in Congress was accompanied by comments like “where was this guy for that last six years?” or “finally, he seems liberated” or “glad he’s gotten around to this now that none of it will happen.” And hard-working activists have a right to be a little cynical because, at base, Obama really just trotted out a lot of common sense proposals that should NOT seem remarkable.
It’s a sign of our times that so many of us greet this kind of small ball as a bold gesture or as evidence that Obama has found his “mojo” as he “yanks his party to the left,” as Maureen Dowd put it. It most certainly is neither. Interestingly both Dowd and the hysterical Republicans whining about the President’s leftward tilt miss the mark by a considerable margin.
From a historical perspective, Obama is really just suggesting we embrace policies that used to be happily accepted by Republicans. As Thom Hartmann pointed out last week:
The truth is that when President Obama says he wants to return to “middle-class economics,” all he’s really doing is trying to take us back to the kind of common sense policies that both parties more or less agreed with until the Reagan Revolution.
He’s just an Eisenhower Republican proposing center-right reforms that conservatives in countries like Germany and Sweden would support without even thinking about it.
And what’s really wild is that 59 years ago, “middle-class economics” was the conservative position here in the United States.
The 1956 Republican Party platform, for example, called for raising the minimum wage, endorsed equal pay for equal work, supported collective bargaining rights for workers, and even celebrated the GOP’s role in expanding Social Security . . .
So to say, as many Republicans are, that President Obama is moving to the left doesn’t just ignore basic ideas about what it means to be right or left-wing, it ignores – or outright lies about – our own history.
For much of the 20th century, America was a much more progressive place – at least in terms of how people understand the government’s role in the economy – than it is right now.
So the fact that many of us get all breathless about proposing a modest increase in the minimum wage and/or making college affordable for working people is more a sign of how far to the right our politics have lurched than anything else.
The truth is that Obama’s speech proposed nothing particularly visionary with regard to addressing poverty or fighting economic inequality and much of the populist thrust in middle class (notice it’s never working class) economics is undercut by his embrace of the TPP. The same could be said for his big talk on climate change.
Even Obama’s best pitch, for free community college, might not turn out to be as good as it seems if it means applying more of his administration’s “Race to the Top” philosophy to community colleges nationwide. As community college educator Adam Bessie observed last week, the rubber will hit the road when we learn more about what the “accountability” aspects of the plan are:
I worry that “free” college may be a Trojan horse for implementing a Race to the Top (RTTT) for higher education, which has been a disastrous policy for K-12 education. RTTT, which is essentially No Child Left Behind rebranded, uses the force of the federal government to institute a regime of standardized testing and so-called “competition,” which has narrowed the curriculum (especially in poor schools, which many of my students come from), emphasizing only reading and math, and tossing aside the arts, sciences and other areas which can’t be tested. Beyond this, RTTT has wrested control of classrooms out of the hands of educators and communities, and placed them into the hands of distant technocrats in the federal government and corporate America.
“Free” college might mean that community colleges would cede local, community control to the federal government; thus, the policies of Washington and corporate America would drive the curriculum, rather than the needs of the community. And based on what we’ve seen with RTTT, it’s likely that community colleges again would become junior colleges – designed primarily as trade schools, or for transfer, with a focus on getting students in and out the door as fast as possible, using standardized, impersonal methods more focused on efficiency than education.
Indeed, on the night of the state of the union, Jonathan Alter addressed this on “liberal” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews Show suggesting that Obama might choose to follow the lead of Rahm Emanuel in Chicago where they turned the community colleges’ curriculum over to corporations. If this is the case, then the promise of the President’s most exciting proposal will end up in the dustbin of history.
So even the thing that deserves the most applause should be greeted with a skeptical eye. As with the Affordable Care Act, we may get the welcome, groundbreaking principle of universality wrapped in corporate packaging. Only time will tell.
But of course, none of this is likely to happen as the Republicans will assuredly do what they can to stand in the way of every good thing that Obama proposed while demanding he accede to their continued assault on the very idea that our government can do anything other than dole out largess to our plutocratic masters.
Let’s just keep hoping that the President is not lured into the kind of bipartisan deal that Chris Matthews suggested on the same show where Alter appeared—like trading agreement on Keystone for chump change.
I have to say that after the kind of relentless assault he has taken from the American right, Obama’s return to his flowery rhetoric about merging “red” and “blue” was sad. I’d feel a lot better if he just stuck to pissing them off and vetoing everything they send to his desk. That would be a legacy worth applauding.